Prot. N. 700/00/L
Through a mysterious sharing in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Sacrament of Penance overcomes the division between man and God caused by sin. In this precious sacrament the repentant sinner receives, as a gracious gift of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the ministry of the Church, that reconciliation, which is "concentrated in Christ himself, the Lamb without blemish offered for our sins (1 Pt 1: 19; Rv 5: 6; 12: 11)," whose "pain and abandonment is thus turned into an inexhaustible source of compassionate and reconciling love".
For this reason, on the occasion of the ad limina visit to Rome in 1998 of the Bishops of Australia, the Holy Father himself and this Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made several observations concerning the authentic discipline of the Sacrament of Penance, in particular concerning the altogether exceptional situations apart from which "general absolution" may never be administered.
Since this Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 "implies a rediscovery of the Sacrament of Penance in its profound meaning as an encounter with the One who forgives us through Christ in the Spirit", this Dicastery has considered it opportune to promote a deepening of an authentic understanding of the sacramental discipline, as well as a correct application of the rite as clearly determined by liturgical and canonical norms. To that end, and after having attentively studied the matter, this Dicastery wishes to state that:
1. The norms in force concerning the Sacrament of Penance are found in the Rite of Penance of the Roman Ritual and in the Code of Canon Law, and are based on divine law, the constant doctrine of the Church and her traditional practice. This Circular Letter recalls those very norms, and therefore, it does not constitute an innovation, nor a modification to the law in force. It does not revoke anything permitted by the dispositions of law in force concerning the Sacrament of Penance. Rather, it recalls those norms concerning the authentic discipline of the Sacrament of Penance which the Holy See, in the Rite of Penance, the Code of Canon Law and several discourses of the Holy Father has already repeatedly expressed. Therefore, it should be clearly stated that there may be no "graduality" in the application of the norm of law. The Congregation for Divine Worship itself has no faculty to deviate from the legislation in force; indeed, its responsibility is to safeguard and promote these norms and, additionally, to assist Bishops in the exercise of their pastoral ministry.
. . . communal celebrations have not infrequently occasioned an illegitimate use of general absolution. This illegitimate use, like other abuses in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance, is to be eliminated.
The teaching of the Church is reflected in precise terms in the requirements of the Code of Canon Law (cf. esp. canons 959-964). In particular it is clear that "A sufficient necessity is not ... considered to exist when confessors cannot be available merely because of a great gathering of penitents, such as can occur on some major feastday or pilgrimage" (canon 961, § 1, 2).
The bishops will exercise renewed vigilance on these matters for the future, aware that departures from the authentic tradition do great wrong to the Church and to individual Catholics.
6. The Holy Father has pointed to the personal nature of sin, conversion, forgiveness and reconciliation as the reason why the Rite of Reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution "demands the personal confession of sins and individual absolution". Since individual and integral confession of sins is not only an obligation "but also an inviolable and inalienable right" of the faithful, any innovation which would interfere with their fulfillment of this obligation, such as when penitents are invited or otherwise encouraged to name just one sin or to name a representative sin, is to be eliminated.
7. As an aid to a more fruitful reception of the Sacrament of Penance and in the hope of fostering the spirit and virtue of penance among the faithful, the Rite of Penance includes material for "Penitential celebrations", which are described as gatherings of the people of God to hear the proclamation of God's word. "Care should be taken that the faithful do not confuse these celebrations with the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance", in particular, by making clear to them that such celebrations are preparatory in nature and do not include the sacramental forgiveness of sins. It is to be borne in mind that such penitential celebrations may not make use of the sacramental formula of absolution, nor should they employ the concluding formula from the Penitential Rite at Mass, nor any other formula which could be misconstrued to be an absolution from sin.
8. Neither the Rite of Reconciliation of several penitents with individual confession and absolution, nor the aforementioned Penitential celebrations may be integrated into the celebration of the Mass. In addition to the unauthorized innovation in the celebration of the respective rites and of the Mass that this practice would represent, it must be noted, in particular, that such abuses run the risk of creating confusion in the minds of the faithful as to whether a sacramental absolution may or may not have taken place.
Since "reconciliation in Christ is achieved in a pre-eminent way in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance", Diocesan Bishops are to recommend strongly the frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance, even in those cases when, after a diligent examination of conscience, penitents remain unaware of any mortal sins, both by promoting this teaching themselves and by reminding confessors to counsel the faithful that "the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit". In the pursuit of that authentic "rediscovery" of the Sacrament of Penance to which the Holy Father calls the Church, "a careful rereading of the Ordo Paenitentiae ("Rite of Penance") will be a great help during the Jubilee for deepening our understanding of the essential elements of this sacrament". Especially in this Holy Year, "'when Jesus' invitation to conversion makes itself more deeply felt' may one of the fruits of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 be the general return of the Christian faithful to the sacramental practice of Confession".
Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 20 March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.
Jorge A. Card. Medina Estévez
+ Francesco Pio Tamburrino